Monday, October 11, 2010

Get Real: Who Do You Serve?

Have you ever felt frustration about the way things are going in your life? Felt yourself slide into a rut and not know how to pull out? How does this happen, anyway? Sometimes our lack of progress is due to a basic lack of honesty with ourselves.

In yoga, as in life, we make the most progress when we 1) accept where we are right now - as opposed to where we want to be, or were five years ago, and 2) make a good effort toward progressing forward, based on where we are. This is how transformation happens: by first getting honest with ourselves, then making appropriate changes in the right direction. As much as it serves our yoga practice, though, honest self-appraisal doesn't always make the transition off the mat, where it is also a necessary condition for change.

What prevents us from being honest with ourselves? Lots of things - all of which probably stem from a lack of mindfulness, or awareness.
For one thing, we unknowingly internalize expectations of others (such as parents, society) and create our own, and our desire to live up to those expectations can bias or distort our perspective. At other times we compare ourselves with others. Or we pretend we're something we're not - creating a role for ourselves to play that is more fantasy than reality. We, ahem, bullshit ourselves because, basically, the truth can be hard and this isn't compatible with wanting to feel ok all the time, which is what we humans seem wired to do.

You may have heard that the brain has what are called reward centers, areas which, when stimulated, release a cascade of neurochemicals that make you feel good. Or better than good. When behaviors stimulate these reward centers, they are said to be intrinsically reinforcing - that is, they are more likely to happen again. If we're not mindful, we can become conditioned to act in ways (however misguided) that seek only to make us feel ok (now!), over and over again. The reward centers can in essence hijack the more rational decision making part of the brain if allowed to do so.
This is why, as the commercial reminds us, you can't eat just one potato chip. Unfortunately, the brain's reward centers are not interested in self-honesty, values, ethics, or anyone else's well-being, including your own in the long-term. This primitive part of the brain is only interested in immediate gratification. Lest we become addicted, or out of control in some other way, we need to be able to resist the call of this primitive brain and be committed to a certain standard of behavior.

Living a principled life is not always the obvious choice because it's often inconvenient and the benefits are not always evident in the short-term. In the long term, though, we maximize our odds of having positive outcomes if we do the right things now.
Honesty and a commitment to certain values help us resist the call of our primitive brain. We need that commitment, because resisting the urge for immediate gratification can be difficult - especially if we're used to giving in to it.

Have you ever grabbed some fast food on the way home from work rather than make the time and effort to cook something healthy? Even if we know that eating healthy food is good for us in the long term, right now we want to EAT. So we choose convenience and short-term gratification at the expense of our health. Our reward centers celebrate while our arteries harden. How often are you actually glad that you went to Greasy Burger later on? In what other ways are you taking the easy way out?

This is where a mindfulness practice like yoga or meditation can help. These practices help increase our self-awareness - which is sometimes experienced as having an outside observer of your behavior. This gives us a different perspective, which among other things, can be a source of insight about our motivations. Simply put, it's harder to bullshit yourself after you've realized you're doing it.

Mindfulness oriented practices help us cultivate and sharpen our sense of values, too. As we become more aware of what we are doing, we become more aware of the impact our behavior has on ourselves, our future, and other people. Again, it's harder to pretend what you're doing is ok when you know what your behavior is really about and who it affects. Many people also find inspiration in studying yoga, which holds central life-affirming values such as nonharming, compassion, truth and love. Sometimes we need help in reminding ourselves of the importance of these qualities.

Mindfulness practices also quiet the mind, both reducing and making us more aware of our inner chatter. By putting a space between that thought "I'm starving" and pulling into the drive-thru you are given a choice you may have bypassed before. Take a deep breath and ask yourself, "what is the best thing for me to do right now?" Ask yourself if you are being really honest with yourself, or just acting out of a desire to feel better. Finally, yoga and meditation can help lower your overall level stress and anxiety, which makes you feel better and may make you less likely to seek relief in unhealthy ways.

So, next time you're about to turn into the drive-thru lane, ask yourself: which do you choose to serve: your reward system or your commitment?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ready, Set, Stretch!

A good article, I thought, about learning to stretch safely and avoid injury, from Yoga International Magazine.

Ready, Set, Stretch! |

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Dealing with Difficult People

Let's face it, there's no escaping it: we all have to deal with, um, challenging people from time to time. How do we do this in a way that doesn't cause us to lose our cool? I wish I had a magic wand for this one, but instead I'll offer a few thoughts.

Probably the best place to start is: cultivate some compassion for the person (whether you think they 'deserve' it or not!) and yourself. Ahimsa, the principle of non-harming, is always a good position. Yes, it can be hard to cultivate compassion for people who are pushing your buttons. But if you think about it, the best scenario is for your nemesis to be happy and well. If s/he were truly happy and well, s/he wouldn't be bothering you, right? So - how do we do that, anyway?

Observe and let go of your judgments. If this is hard, it can help to remember that people become the way they are for reasons that are multifaceted, and often out of their control. For example, a child doesn't ask to be horribly abused or neglected, and if s/he grows up to be an angry, cranky person it's probably understandable. If there's anything that I learned from my time working at the state hospital, it's that horrific, tragic things can happen to innocent people. Some people's stories are so sad it's a wonder they have any semblance of sanity. So if a person seems difficult, there may be a reason. Just remember: the person you are dealing with has a backstory, and you probably don't know the half of it.

Similarly, it can help to consider that a person's outward demeanor (ex: intimidating, confrontational, needy) may serve a purpose or meet a need. A person who is arrogant and aggressive may build a life around promoting/protecting herself because she feels she needs to. The outward behavior may be defending against feelings of inadequacy and fear.

Consider also - can you connect with this person at any level? You may be surprised to learn you both love poodles or Thai food. Or both. Or something. Look for other aspects of the person besides their "difficultness."

With all this in mind, you can soften your self-protective stance and relax when approaching someone and remind yourself, "we are on the same side." If you put your armor down, they are more likely to do the same. Take a breath, or several.

Next, ask yourself: what's the best thing to do - for all involved? Consider the viewpoint of the greater good, not just what serves your ego. Contemplate your actions from a place of love (corny as that may sound) rather than fear and self-protection. And remember that behaviors - including micro-behaviors like talking and thinking - have consequences, so try to do the right thing even when it's difficult (remember - tapas!). Best to leave a situation with a difficult person with a clean conscience. Less to worry about later.

If you have a person whose life and conduct you admire, you might bring them to mind and ask: "what would [the Buddha/Jesus/Gandhi] do? Yes, it's become a cliche, but it can be helpful in a pinch to give you clarity and a reminder of something higher than, say, revenge.

Avoid control struggles whenever possible. Ask yourself: am I really just trying to control this situation? For the good of everyone involved, do I need to? I'm not saying that you should let someone walk all over you. But if someone seems to need to have control of something and the only issue you really have is one of control (as opposed to how they want to handle it), maybe you can let it go. You can always choose how you respond to something for yourself - it's not like you're handing over the keys to your life. Besides, a person isn't really taking control if you give it to them mindfully. Of course, there will be times you will need to take control of situations for the good of everyone involved, but this is best done mindfully, compassionately and NOT in the service of your ego.

Finally, after you've interacted with a difficult person, instead of mentally concocting some story line about how awful they are or patting yourself on the back for surviving it, contemplate wishing them well. Realize, again - that this person suffers just like the rest of us, and doesn't want to any more than you do. Cultivate the wish for the person to be free from suffering. If this sounds difficult, it can be. Buddhists use this premise as form of meditation: consider the idea that every person you meet was your mother in a previous incarnation in order to cultivate the wish for them not to suffer. Wow.

So maybe you're thinking - why should I have all this love and compassion for this person who is driving me crazy?! Try it and see if it doesn't feel better than collecting resentments. I believe it's also called love thy enemy.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Maintaining Sanity in Insane Times

I was recently talking to a friend of mine who, as a teacher, enjoys summers off but will soon be returning to school. She explained that she's been doing a lot of yoga and personal work this summer - and wonders how her hard-earned serenity will hold up when she has to return to the chaos of work. I thought it was an excellent question - how do we maintain serenity in chaos? Here are a few thoughts:

*Maintain your practice and your routine. When time is tight, it becomes tempting to abandon yoga, meditation, or whatever you practice. We all take a day (or two+!) off from time to time, which is fine. The problem is that we'll tell ourselves it's ok to take a few more days off, which then turns into a week, a month and longer. Yes, it can be difficult, but making the time - even just 10 minutes a day for meditation - will keep you in touch with your practice and yourself. You will stay more centered and paradoxically, have more time for the rest of your life if you make the time to practice. Trust the process. Show up, and the process of practice will carry you along.

*Observe your internal dialog. Cultivate an awareness of your thoughts and feelings, and ask yourself: what are you adding to your situation? Negativity? Resistance? Often our thoughts about a situation can add a lot of stress and negativity, and we're not even aware of them. A good practice is to acknowledge our thoughts and feelings and label them (ex: "I'm thinking about how much I dread going back to school. Feeling anxiety.") Then, practice letting the thought and/or feeling go, and return to the present moment by focusing on your breath or other physical sensations. (Note I said 'practice' - it does take some practice). If you have trouble letting go of your thoughts, visualization can help: you might imagine your thoughts or feelings are like clouds drifting overhead, helium balloons that you release and watch float away, or boxes on a conveyor belt being carried away. For some reason, thoughts and feelings seem to have a need to be acknowledged, but it helps to remember that they are not facts. Some are useful; some are not. Just practice observing them and you will eventually begin to realize they are transitory and you don't have to get carried away by them. And when we are not caught up in our own storyline (ex: "I have to go back to school in a few weeks and it's going to be awful") we can meet day to day challenges with a lot more clarity, less negativity and resistance.

*Remind yourself of your intention. Why do you do what you do? Do you have a personal mission statement? Even if your job (or your life) isn't finding a cure for cancer or ending world hunger, you can create your own meaning by considering what is important to you and reminding yourself of this regularly. It doesn't have to be a big mission like saving the world. Maybe you will try to make one person smile today. Your mental health (and others') will benefit.

*Ask yourself when you start tensing up - "could I lighten up about this?" Chances are, you could. We tend to take things - especially things our ego doesn't like, such as conflict, disapproval, and other challenges sooo seriously. You may have heard this before, but it bears repeating: when you're stressed about something, ask yourself, "will this matter in a year from now?" Most of our day to day snits we won't even remember in a year. Take a deep breath (or several) and lighten up when you can.

*Have some fun. Laugh. Have a sense of humor, and don't forget to make time to see friends and do the things you enjoy. If you spend a lot of time working, you will need some time spent away from work to decompress and recalibrate your mind and emotions. Again, time constraints can make this a challenge, but you won't regret making this a priority. Of course, as with all things, balance is the key. I'm not suggesting going on a weekend drinking binge in the name of having fun, just that it's a good idea to make sure you have some down time.

*Accept that life can be difficult. I think sometimes we forget this, and when the going gets tough, we think we're doing something wrong, or are inadequate to meet the challenge. The truth is, life is challenging for everyone at times, and in the big picture, it's not that important that we are 100% happy, 100% of the time. Our expectation or need to be happy all the time can actually make us more unhappy! This doesn't mean you have to endure horrible situations that can and should be changed. It just means that not every phase of our life is easy - and that our greatest times of growth come from our greatest challenges. Step up to the plate. This is tapas. And don't hesitate to ask for help when you need it!

*Finally, remember that a challenging situation is an opportunity to serve. Whether you choose to serve God, humanity, your highest ideals (or all of the above), challenges are times to remember that it's not all about you (or me). When you stop feeling you have to protect yourself all the time, and enter a situation with an attitude of service, your load is lightened. And remember, all you have to do is do your best, and then leave it. (see last week's entry on the niyamas)!

Of course it's also a good idea to make sure you are eating well and getting enough rest, too. These are a few things I try to remember to do when the going gets tough. What do you do?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Yoga Philosophy You Can Use - the Niyamas

Ok, so we've talked about the yamas, which have mostly to do with our behavior towards others. The next stop on our path, the niyamas, sometimes called "restraints," have more to do with our behavior toward ourselves. There are five of them as well, and they are:

Sauca: purity, or cleanliness. You've heard that "cleanliness is next to Godliness," right? The idea behind sauca is about keeping yourself and the things in your life in good order so that they can function their best and help you live your life well. Knowing the connection between the body and the mind, if feed your body junk, or take drugs, for example, can you really expect to have optimal mental health? You wouldn't put sewage in your car and expect it to run well. And, as seems to be the case in all of these practices, there is a more subtle, internal aspect to this practice also. It's a good idea to examine what kind of things you're feeding your 'mental body' also. For example, if you spend all your free time watching violent movies - you are in essence, feeding your brain these images. You can imagine, it's hard to have a quiet mind after watching a horrifically violent movie. Does this mean we should just avoid all of the unpleasantries of life? Not at all. It just means we should be mindful of what we choose to ingest - literally, and figuratively.

Of course, the tendency to keep things clean and pure must be met with brahmacarya, or moderation. Going to extremes in behavior is ultimately self-defeating.

Santosha - contentment. We're all seeking contentment, aren't we? As elusive as it may seem at times, it helps to remember that positive states like contentment can be cultivated. There are many ways - and everyone will have their own. For me, yoga, music and laughter can do the trick. Another way to increase contentment is to cultivate gratitude. There are so many parts of our lives that we take for granted, if we only stop to realize them. We're so quick to recognize the things that go wrong in our lives - we seldom stop to acknowledge the little things that go right. For example, I was able to go to yoga class this morning because a myriad of things went right. Just to name a few - my car started; I had gas in my car; I didn't have a wreck on the way; the teacher had the same luck and showed up and was generous enough to share her knowledge with us; my body was healthy and pain-free enough to participate...the list could go on and on. We so rarely notice our non-headaches - the absence of problems, pain or suffering, we just become aware when they show up. Waking up to the presence of non-problems goes a long way toward cultivating contentment.

Tapas - heat, or "glow." I think of tapas as having to do with perserverence, self-discipline and enthusiasm. We all have days in which we don't want to go to work, exercise or do something we know we need to do, or is good for us. What makes us work through our resistance? Tapas. Sometimes it helps to remind ourselves of why it's good for us to do something. When I'm feeling like blowing off my yoga practice, I often tell myself - I never regret doing yoga, only not doing it. And, sometimes, we just think too much about things - getting into mental arguments with ourselves about what we should do. In these cases, we need to just let go the internal chatter and just focus on the present moment - and just do what is called for. Because in the doing it, in the showing up we've already made progress. Not to mention, to get the benefits of any practice, we need sustained effort, or heat. Tapas.

Of course, burnout is an all-too-common fact of life and we need to be mindful - and moderate - in our activity levels. And, as with all of these practices, tapas can be cultivated. Like all of the yamas and niyamas, it's something we have to practice. We may not start out with much self-discipline, but by making one little change every day we can make a lot of progress before too long.

Enthusiasm and motivation can be cultivated, too. Often going to a workshop, a museum, being in nature or just doing something outside of your routine, or getting a change of scenery can mentally wipe the slate clean and be energizing too.

Svadyaya - study. Here's another example of a practice that has both external and internal aspects. Learning and study are vital to personal development, to be sure. Whether we're learning a new hobby, learning yoga philosophy or a new language, learning is good for the brain and mental health. The other side of the coin, though, is self-study. We should regularly engage in honest self-reflection, which should include examining not only the things we could improve, but the things we've done well. As with all things, we will do well to remember the underpinning of ahimsa, or nonharming, and approach self-study with a compassionate attitude. Having taken an honest look at ourselves and our behavior, with the self-discipline of tapas, we can begin to make changes in the direction of becoming the person we want to be.

Isvara pranidhana - surrender. This practice is often described as devotion to God - or surrendering the fruits of our labors to God. Though this interpretation may not resonate with everyone, Isvara pranidhana still a workable, helpful concept. One way to think about it is surrendering the illusion of control. As much as we would like to be in control of our lives - and of course, having a certain amount of control of ourselves is desirable - at some point, we have to acknowledge and admit that we can't control everything. All we can do in life is to do our best, and then leave it. Forget about the outcome. If you've done your best, you can rest in the knowledge that you've made your contribution to the big picture - and remember that the ultimate outcome is not totally up to you.

Ultimately, the niyamas are about the importance of self-care in the service of the greater good. By taking care of yourself in these ways, you are more able to live your best life, which is definitely good for your mental health.


For further reading: there are several good translations of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I probably like Satchidananda's best but Isherwood's How to Know God is more accessible and a good place to start, in my opinion.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Yoga Philosophy You Can Use - the Yamas

One of the most fundamental - and practical - parts of yoga philosophy is the group of practices called the yamas. The yamas are 5 guiding principles which form the basis of an ethical and satisfying life. I think of them as a sort of compass - when I feel off kilter, I run through the yamas in my mind and see if there's something I could be doing differently. So here's a quick introduction:

Ahimsa: nonharming. This is the foundation, the basis for all that follows. We cultivate an attitude of compassion toward others - toward everyone - even ourselves (isn't it easy to forget to include ourselves?). If it's difficult to be kind to yourself, try considering how you might feel or act toward someone you love - a child, friend even a pet. So ahimsa becomes the basis on which we think, feel and act. We can ask ourselves before doing something - is this harmful or helpful? This helps us become more in tune with the subtle ways we can do harm to ourselves, through negative self-talk, self-defeating behaviors, and so on. And considering the impact we have on others helps our relationships, too. Sometimes when we're in a difficult situation, it helps to remember ahimsa; we can remind ourselves we're not really "against" anyone.

Satya: truthfulness. Being honest with ourselves (and others) is a basic requirement for a healthy life. Let's face it, as humans, we are pretty good at bullshitting ourselves! But most of the time, underneath the BS there's an awareness of what's really going on - but a lack of acceptance. Cultivating acceptance isn't the same as being resigned to the way things are; on the contrary. Acceptance is a necessary condition for change. We have to see where we are and accept it if we want to go about changing it.

Of course, on a more basic level, satya is about telling the truth to others, too. It's important to remember the underlying foundation of nonharming, though. Sometimes it's better just to stay quiet!

Asteya: nonstealing. This can be taken literally, as in not taking what is not given to you. On a more subtle level though, it has to do with not taking what belongs to others, like their time, attention, control, you respect people enough to be on time, or do you make them wait for you? Can you let someone enjoy the spotlight, or do you have to grab it for yourself? Do you need to control situations at the expense of others? The ways in which we can take from others (or not!) are endless.

Brahmacarya: This one is harder to define and if you look into it much, you'll find lots of different interpretations, but the basic idea is to avoid misusing your energy. Some texts interpret this yama to mean sexual restraint, but in my opinion, it can also be applied to all sorts of situations. Paying attention to where we put our energies is a very valuable exercise. Do you squander your energy in unhealthy ways like gossiping, using drugs, watching tv all the time or...?

Aparigraha: greedlessness. This one runs somewhat counter to what society expects of us! Aparigraha encourages us to be satisfied with what we've got, and not to chase after things we really don't need. There's nothing wrong with being comfortable in life, but most of us spend a lot of time thinking about, wanting, and chasing things we really don't need. New cars, fancy clothes and expensive stuff don't really make us happy - we've been told this before. Chasing after stuff does give us some immediate pleasure, but soon it wears off and we're on to the next thing (or paying off the credit cards). And lots of the time, our stuff is just a distraction from our real lives.

This is just a quick introduction to these practices - volumes have been written about them. So why is all this important to mental health? If you think about it, kindness and ethical behavior are really prerequisites to good mental health. If you treat others badly, for example, you are bound to experience some combination of guilt and anxiety about future consequences, your relationships suffer, and so on. And, the yamas help take us away from our usual self-centered mindset and start considering the impact we have on others, and on the world. When we feel good about ourselves and what we do, we can have true peace of mind.

Ultimately, doing better means feeling better. But don't take my word for it. Try it yourself!

Yoga Therapy Conference

Speaking of yoga research...I got this information in my email inbox today from The International Association of Yoga Therapists. The IAYT is a wealth of information for yoga teachers and therapists; they publish an annual journal of scientific research, as well as the Yoga Therapy Today publication. Although mental health issues are well-covered in their publications, you will also find information on a variety of issues, such as back pain, osteopenia, training issues, preventing yoga injuries and much more.

Here are links to further information on the organization, their upcoming conference, and the also worthwhile Himalayan Institute. Check them out!


The International Association of Yoga Therapists is pleased to announce its first Symposium on Yoga Research (SYR) on October 1-3, 2010 at the Himalayan Institute .

This will be a single track academic research meeting devoted to yoga and yoga therapy research that will include presentations by senior researchers, extensive poster sessions, and ample opportunities for interaction between scientists, trainees and yoga therapists and instructors. For complete SYR 2010 information please visit

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What is Tejas?

Another name for Texas, of course!

Tejas is also a Sanskrit term that means power, radiant energy or brilliance. It's also been interpreted to mean valor or fearlessness. That shiny happy feeling you get at the end of yoga class - tejas!

Thank you for visiting this site. In the weeks to come I hope to share interesting and useful information about yoga and mental health. This is an exciting time for this field of research - more and more studies are showing that yoga can help recovery from anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress, addiction, and more. So stay tuned!